The Table Podcast

Respectfully Engaging Animism

In this episode, Dr. Darrell L. Bock and Ken Nehrbass discuss understanding and respectfully engaging Animism.

Respectfully Engaging World Religions
  1. Respectfully Engaging Atheism
  2. Respectfully Engaging Sikhism
  3. Respectfully Engaging Shintoism
  4. Respectfully Engaging Animism
Timecodes
00:15
Nehrbass’ interest in Animism
04:00
Anthropology and intercultural studies
06:10
How do you talk about animism in regards to religion?
10:00
What is Animism’s relationship to the material world?
15:10
How are Animistic beliefs sometimes mixed with Christian beliefs?
19:40
What is a Shaman?
21:05
What is the role of ancestry in Animism?
22:20
What kinds of rituals are associated with Animism?
27:40
What makes Animism attractive?
32:45
Respectfully engaging Animism in one’s personal context
37:40
Considerations for Bible translation
42:30
How does the Gospel speak into Animism?
Transcript
Darrell Bock
Welcome to The Table where we discuss issues of God and culture, and our topic today is part of our world religions series. Although in this case we’ve got a little bit of an unusual category. It’s animism and our guest is Ken Nehrbass, who is Associate Professor of Intercultural Studies and Program Director of the Intercultural Studies area at Biola University. Ken, welcome.
Ken Nehrbass
Thank you very much.
Darrell Bock
And we’re going to be discussing animism, which is really an array of stuff, so – and it’s not a formal religion in the way we would normally think about it and as our discussion is gonna make clear. The people who engage in animism aren’t necessarily thinking of themselves as being necessarily particularly religious. We’ll cover all that ground, but Ken, why don’t you start off by telling us a little bit about your background and how a nice guy like you ended up in a gig like this.
Ken Nehrbass
When I was about 18 years old, I read a book called Peace Child by Don Richardson and he’d gone to Indonesia. Then it was called Irian Jaya, lived with a tribal people, learned their language, and translated the New Testament. And when I read that, I said living in the outdoors, working with the Bible, and learning another language, that’s me. I knew I was gonna do it and finished my seminary degree, and then my wife and I got our linguistics training with Wycliffe. And we didn’t know it – where Vanuatu was in the world, but someone in Wycliffe said why don’t you go to Vanuatu.
Darrell Bock
Slow down. Vanuatu, did I mention most people have no idea where Vanuatu is.
Ken Nehrbass
We didn’t either. It’s 500 miles west of Fiji and –
Darrell Bock
That may or may not help people [laughs].
Ken Nehrbass
To make it sound more remote, it’s 1500 miles north of New Zealand or 1500 miles east of Australia. It’s in the middle of the South Pacific.
Darrell Bock
Okay, there you go. All right, so it’s one of those dots.
Ken Nehrbass
Yes, the dots, definitely. We didn’t know anything about the South Pacific or the tropics, but someone in Wycliffe said there’s 106 languages there. They’re maintaining their languages so it’s not like other – maybe in Australia, even first nations, United States, Canada, where there are a lot of languages, but people are forgetting those languages to – in order to speak English. But they’re maintaining their languages and so they said 106 languages, almost no New Testament is translated in any of those. We decided sure, we’ll go live there and learn the language, right an alphabet, create a dictionary, teach people to read their language, and translate the New Testament with them.
Darrell Bock
Maybe you did get a degree in theology, but it sounds like you also trained in another discipline. Am I right about that?
Ken Nehrbass
Yeah, Wycliffe requires a mixture of anthropology and linguistics. They do prefer also a background – you have to have a certain amount of Bible background to pull it off, but there’s also, within the organization, a lot of experts in exegesis, all the New Testament. They check your exegesis as long as you’re learning the language and getting a team to translate with you.
Darrell Bock
You’ve got an anthropology background. Now again, this might be an area that people may or may not be familiar with. What does an anthropologist do? The term itself, I’m a Greek New Testament guy, so the moment I hear anthropology, I – the study of humans, but so what does an anthropologist do?
Ken Nehrbass
We were living with a people that we found – we thought of as more or less very similar to us, but we found out that were drastic differences in worldview and the time when I realized that wow, the people we’re living with are so different. I need to spend some time learning about a different people and learning how to learn from them, what they believe, what makes them tick, what their values are. There was a man who was digging a well on Sunday on our island and it was in the sand, and it collapsed on him and the people in our village said of course it collapsed on him, it was Sunday. And I said what do you mean by that? Well, God killed him. He was sinning. He was working on Sunday. It’s called Sunday sick and then the Seventh Day Adventists on the island said no, God killed him because he left the Seventh Day Adventist church and so God killed him. And that’s when I realized I don’t know a lot about the people we’re living with we’ve moved in with. I went to Biola to answer that question really. I wanted a PhD on intercultural studies to study how do you do field work, how do you understand another culture’s values, social systems, their attitudes about life, and their religions as well.
Darrell Bock
An anthropologist studies the way people and societies basically work and the way in which – and the different ways in which people groups operate.
Ken Nehrbass
Mm-hmm. Sometimes they have an applied purpose, study culture for the purpose of improving the rights of women or for community development. I think that mostly missionaries study anthropology so that they can understand the culture well enough to present Christ in a way that can change the culture.
Darrell Bock
Let’s shift gears here. I’ve already suggested that animism is an interesting area and it’s an interesting term. Let’s talk a little bit about that. We were talking before we started to record. I said I don’t know anyone who walks up and says to me I am an animist. One, what are we talking about and two, how – I think the way to ask this is how does animism relate to religion? How should we think about that relationship?
Ken Nehrbass
Animism is a system of beliefs and practices that is fundamentally centered on the idea that the world we live in on earth is impacted by supernatural activity. It could be personal or impersonal. The impersonal activity could be evil eye, charms and amulets, sacrifices if they’re not particularly to a god, but just you kill the chickens so your child gets better. It could be bad luck or fate or karma, as well as enchanted rivers and doing a rain dance. And then the personal forces could be ghosts, spirits. Once these personal spirits begin to be like gods, you move out of animism into polytheism. Now it may seem like when I talk about magic and witchcraft and sorcery or voodoo and such that it sounds either like it’s the thing of fairytales or that no one alive must practice this. But in reality, most people from Africa, South America, throughout the Pacific, and even in many parts of Asia have beliefs that the supernatural world impacts life on earth. And so they read tea leaves. They avoid walking under a ladder or letting a black cat cross their path or they perform, like I said, rain dances or they see a shaman to heal their child.
Darrell Bock
This is basically the variety of ways in which humans connect to supernatural forces, but it isn’t run by explicit doctrines. There’s no holy book or if there are, it’s related to incantations and that kind of – how to engage the spirits, if you will. It’s basically an approach that attempts to be sensitive to the spirit world that’s around us. Is that – be a generic – good generic description of it?
Ken Nehrbass
Yeah. Some anthropologists have taught – tried to describe what goes – what we call animism as basically magic. Others have thought that it was primarily about the soul, what happens – why do you get sick? Does your soul leave? Others have thought – had – Freud had other explanations. It was basically wishful thinking or displacement of desires. Different people have had different ways of explaining it, but universally there’s just a sense that when something bad happens, it wasn’t just an accident. Even though there’s no holy book, that’s the tenet. Number one proposition would be if something bad happens, someone must’ve caused it. Either I did something bad or you did something bad to cause me to have a misfortune in my life.
Darrell Bock
So you’re negotiating with the invisible world in a lot of ways.
Ken Nehrbass
Trying to control it. In that sense, it’s more appealing maybe then belief in a distant god because maybe I don’t have any control over a god who dwells in heaven who I’ve never seen, but at least I can take this rock into a garden and wash it and make my bread fruits grow or my coconuts.
Darrell Bock
I mentioned it takes many forms. The spirits can be seen as being detached from nature or the spirits can be seen as being within nature. What’s the relationship to the natural material world?
Ken Nehrbass
I think that outsiders have tried to locate what is this spirit. Is it in the rock? Is it in the river? I don’t know that many animists feel a need to answer or to systematize it to make it coherent or to – they just would say it’s a fact. It’s just a brute fact. The way that the universe works is that river is enchanted. That rock makes a coconut tree grow without needing to explain where the spirit is or why it’s there or how you know that really.
Darrell Bock
One of the interesting things in trying to prepare for this, since I’m not an animist, is actually reading the variety of ways in which this has manifested itself globally. I’m gonna say this wrong. In Vanuatu – is it Vanuatu?
Ken Nehrbass
You got it, yeah.
Darrell Bock
Okay, you came across this. You’re coming from the United States. Wycliffe has encouraged you in relation to your gifts to go and translate the Bible into this culture. You walk in and you realize I really don’t know what makes these neighbors tick, and you decide to take that on and boom, you encounter this. Do you remember what that was like?
Ken Nehrbass
I think the first Sunday we were there, we were at a church service. The leading elder in the church – the church had been planted for two years there in this people group.
Darrell Bock
So the church is very, very new.
Ken Nehrbass
Very new, no New Testament and – or no scripture, no hymns in the language. What someone from outside of the language group had come in and said here’s how you go to church. You build a building out of bamboo. You stand up, sit down, put on a white shirt, black pants. You’re an elder. You’re an elder. You’re a deacon. You’re a deacon. Sing these songs in English. Read this book in English.
Darrell Bock
That’s really basic Christianity [laughs].
Ken Nehrbass
Yeah, not very heavy on the doctrine or repentance. The first Sunday we were there, the leading elder came up and said, “Do you have rain stones in America?” And I didn’t know what a rain stone was and as a missionary, I probably should’ve known what a rain stone was before I got there. But no, if I don’t know what it is, we probably don’t have them. Well, how does it rain then? Well, the clouds – I don’t know how it rains.

But that was our first introduction. The leading elder was also a shaman who traced his ancestry back to a certain devil and he described certain sicknesses as being yellow or if someone got sick, he would chew on a certain leaf and sit under a certain tree that was enchanted, that would make your body go numb if you went near it. And he would divine why you got sick. And so these were – it was very common for – one of the church leaders was in charge of making the tarot, which is like a starchy potato. They would send him off for six months to do the magic to make the tarot grow, but he was also an elder in the church. And so there was no sense that this was peculiar or non Christian because if I had said don’t do magic, don’t trust an evil spirit, they would agree entirely because doing the rain stone isn’t magic for them. It was just a law of nature. This stone, everything in the earth is created by God. The stone was created by God. Therefore in some syllogism, God must’ve created this stone. The stone makes rain. God gave us the rain stones and so we’re actually fulfilling our Genesis 2:15 commandment to be fruitful and multiply by making rain, making tarots grow, healing our kids through chewing on leaves.

Darrell Bock
Managing the earth.
Ken Nehrbass
Yeah, right.
Darrell Bock
This actually raises an observation which is one of the characteristics of animism is that it often shows up as a kind of – in the church as kind of syncretism, where you get this mixture of what is called popular or folk religion into – as dressing around or through the Christianity that one might run into. You’ve made an interesting observation that I think we ought to discuss and that is that in some of the societies where you come into animism, Christianity has been around for a while. And the powers that be associated with animism react to it. In other cases where Christianity is so new, it’s like the tendency will be to make some type of combination or something like that with it. The situation that you were in is a situation where Christianity was so new, there wasn’t that kind of reaction to it. Whereas you were telling me you were aware of other places where people are engaged in missionary work, where Christianity has been around and there’s – there is a counter theology, if you will, at work. Why don’t you talk a little bit about that?
Ken Nehrbass
On our island we lived on is called Tanna. John Paton, famous missionary mid 19th century, came – landed there four years, was run off the island. He had told people don’t do magic basically. Don’t worship your stones and these were magical stones. And they thought here’s a person who’s trying to ruin our life. He was saying don’t let your gardens grow. Don’t have healthy kids. Don’t let it rain ‘cause he was telling them to get rid of the thing that made life possible. Where we were, John Paton’s influence had not extended. Sometimes animism goes underground. The church might say that dancing – I don’t mean American style dancing. I mean animistic style, dancing to make it rain or dancing connected with immorality is don’t do it or don’t make sacrifices with chickens to make your kids healthy or something. It goes underground and they hide it.

But where we were, we had told them we’re here to learn your culture. We wanna live with you and so we actually had people knocking on our door in the morning to wake us up and say hey, you gotta come see this dance we’re doing. We’re gonna make it rain or as a matter of fact, one time, they said we’re gonna make the sun shine. We wanna borrow your truck and so don’t look at the wood and don’t touch the wood because it’s holy, but just back your truck up to the tree and we’ll chop it down and cut it up in small pieces and put it in your truck, and you bring it back. That’s a good example of syncretism. You’ve got a modern day truck driving them and you’ve got the missionary driving the wood up into the village that you’re gonna use to do some ritual to make the sun shine. A special someone who calls himself a descendant of the sun takes a certain sun stone, puts it in a basket, cooks it over this wood that they’ve cut down in a secret hut and makes the sun shine.

Darrell Bock
So there are a lot of ritualistic practices. There are a lot of formula that go with this and if you read about this, as I started to allude to this earlier and didn’t finish, in reading about animism, the interesting thing is that you get a section where it raises the issue of animism. And then the subsection is it shows itself in a variety of samples from around the world in the way this shows up. Probably the most direct experience I have of animism is visiting Chichicastenango in Guatemala, which is – and right in front of the catholic church, you have people of Indian background from Guatemala, Guatemalan Indians, who have taken the variety of practices from their popular folk religion.

And right on the doors of the church are performing a variety of rituals. In some cases, some of the people will go in and participate in the activities of the church, and come out and do what they do. And in other cases, you’ve got people who don’t wanna have anything to do with the church ‘cause it’s been around a long time and they recognize that it’s a challenge to them and what they believe. Which brings us to the contrastive situation which is that in places where Christianity has come and in some cases established itself or begun to establish itself. The animistic community sometimes is reactive to the presence of the Christians.

Ken Nehrbass
Yeah, certain practices can be very fuzzy. If I take a Bible and lay it on your head, is that kind of just symbolic or am I doing something animistic? Do I think that I’m healing you because I have the power or because now God has to obey me because I put a Bible on your head? The church has a hard time working out, in each of its contexts, what is it going to outline, what is it not. And that’s the problem. Whenever it says this is off limits, then people will just continue doing that and do it underground. They might pay the shaman on the side, but typically what people will do is they will hedge their bets and try all avenues. Go to church, obey all of the church’s rules, give your – maybe your tithe or something, pray, ask the pastor for prayer and anointing, and go see the shaman and go to the hospital and get the pills. I think they’re hedging their bets often.
Darrell Bock
I just realized we’ve been using a term that we’ve assumed people know what it means, but they might not know what it means, a shaman. What’s a shaman?
Ken Nehrbass
Shaman may be a medicine doctor. Usually involves leaves and stones, and maybe going into a trance to decide why you’re sick. It is kind of a global phenomenon. Sometimes it’s only men. Sometimes it’s actually holy women instead. Korean shamanism has – often has holy women. Usually it’s older people who are near death and so they’re seen as practically into the spirit world so they can exert that influence. Usually a shaman has to have some sort of supernatural experience in their life to get that status: near death, struck by lightning, or just had a vision or a dream. And so – but again, people will hedge their bets. They’ll go pay different shamans. You get a tick and you get a tick and you get a tick, and then whichever of you figures out why I’m sick and I get better, then you’re the one that did it or that healed it.
Darrell Bock
Interesting. The interesting thing about this is that it really does manifest itself in a variety of ways around the world and yet at the same time, there are certain consistent things about it as well. It is a concern with the spirits, a concern to either control or placate or honor the spirits in such a way. One thing we haven’t talked about yet, may have to extend to the other side of the break, is the role of ancestors in some of these movements in the way in which they are viewed so that it’s a – it becomes a way of connecting to family and family history. I don’t know how much you wanna say about that now, but ancestor associations and the spirit of ancestors are often in play here as opposed to impersonal spirits that I can’t identify or whatever.
Ken Nehrbass
Probably one of the fundamental aspects of animism is that it’s very localized. I call it ecocentric in that it’s very much tied to a place. More than Christianity, which yes, it did have – it is tied to Israel to events that happened 2000 years ago, but within animism, this – these rocks work in this river. These leaves are localized for healing in this area. And so even the holy people in animism are your ancestors and in the South Pacific, Melanesian, Polynesian animism, things are more nebulous. People aren’t really elevated to the level of spiritual. People who have died in the past, they can’t name these spirits. Whereas in African animism, typically they can name recently deceased ancestors who they would maybe pour out a little bit of wine or maybe spill chicken blood and say that ancestor’s name or pay someone who’s related to them to go off into the spirit world and heal their child who’s sick or make their garden grow.
Darrell Bock
We’ve talked about magic. We’ve talked about the presence of spirits. We’ve talked about ancestors. We haven’t talked so much about rituals. What rituals are associated with animism? Or the kinds of rituals is probably a better way to ask the question. And you said that people would come and say oh, you’ve got to see this. This is part of what we do. Talk a little bit about that.
Ken Nehrbass
It seems to be human universal. All cultures seem to have both rites of passage and rites of intensification. The rites of passage in animistic societies can – there can actually be many from – just to give our island as an example, Tanna and Vanuatu. When a child is born, they would have a ritual. The woman goes into hiding when his umbilical cord falls off, when his first tooth falls out. Interesting thing we haven’t mentioned about animism, it is a belief in two kinds – two laws about nature. One is the law of contagion, which is if two things that used to be in contact with each other continue to exert an influence on each other. If a tooth falls out of a baby, that’s spiritually charged and if you get hold of that tooth and burn it in a fire, my child might have a fever.

And so they need these rituals to decrease the anxiety of the umbilical cord fell off. What if someone gets it? Bury it well. Burn it well. Do something magical or supernatural to avoid the law of contagion that someone might perform black magic on my child. And of course if your child dies, then everyone looks back and says what’d you do with the first tooth when it came? What’d you do with the umbilical cord? Did your wife go into hiding after the placenta came out? What’d you do with the placenta?

The other law is the law of imitation, which is that things that sound or look alike exert an influence on each other. If I make the sound of rain, it’ll rain. If I make something that looks like a coconut wet and healthy basically, smooth it all up, then my coconuts will be healthy. These rituals are – exist to decrease the anxiety about the spiritual nature of life or these laws. Beyond the first two, then a puberty ritual. That’s seen as a very dangerous period in life. Are you a man or a boy or how do you fit into society? And very anxiety producing and so we’ll put you in hiding until we know you’re safe. You’re no longer spiritually dangerous.

And funerals of course are the biggest example of when you die, we don’t know how long your spirit’s gonna hang around and taunt us. A funeral can last a month. You can’t shave. You can’t peel any potatoes or anything ‘cause you might cut yourself. You can’t stay inside that person’s house. It might collapse on you and so animistic funerals can be very involved and burn everything related to that person. And don’t say their name ever again because we don’t know how long that spirit hangs around. Those are the rites of passage related to animism. There can be many more and then there’s the rites of intensification, which are done as a – at a festival level community-wide, usually on an annual basis related – usually related to agriculture or the moon, for instance, throughout the world.

In western European history, we had Mayday, which was a spring fertility ritual. There’s new moon rituals. Again, it’s fear about is it last month or this month? Is it a spiritually charged time? Where we live, there was a ritual every single night at sunset, which was seen as the most spiritually charged time of day because it was neither day nor night. Were the spirits out? Had they been – in the daytime, you would assume spirits wouldn’t be as active, I guess. Something in animistic logic would say that, but right at sunset and so that’s the time when you – every day, they would make an incantation to the spirits and get stoned on a pepper plant called kava and communicate to the spirits.

Darrell Bock
There’s a whole array of practices and all this is designed to try and manage and control or placate or a variety of motives really what’s going on. And of course this is global. This happens in different parts of the world. You were in the pacific. I think you told me you were supervising a dissertation that deals with animism in Zambia, which has some shared characteristics with some of the stuff you experienced and then some peculiarities with – so it’s a very localized – I say decentralized response to the world that we’re dealing with here. In some senses, it’s a little harder to package than say of Judaism or an Islam or a Buddhism. Let’s shift gears here. What’s the attraction? What causes people to be an adherent? Fear, community? What’s going on?
Ken Nehrbass
I think one of the attractive parts is you can control your life. If you do all of this magic, do the umbilical cord ceremony rite, do the funeral rite, do the new harvest ritual rite, and the new moon ritual rite, then your food will grow. You won’t have any sicknesses and so there’s this – it is a decreasing of anxiety or fear about what if something goes wrong. If you get along with people and you don’t go into the taboo places, then everything’s gonna go well. That thinking is transferred to Christianity then in animistic backgrounds. When we came into our village, they explained to us ever since we started going to church, there’s been no sickness, no mudslides, no hurricanes because we’re obeying all the rules, they were saying. Part of that was a bit disturbing to me because I had made a lot of hospital runs [laughs], but there was this need to fit their life experience into their logic, which was surely if you do all of the rule – if you follow all of the rules –
Darrell Bock
Everything will be okay.
Ken Nehrbass
Yeah, so there’s a bit of a deception in there that you can be good enough and that your life will go well. Part of it’s placating fear. I think part of it is common sense in that there seems to be built something into human nature that says if you do something wrong, something bad should happen to you. That’s just built into – we feel like that’s just and so animism has a quick answer for that. It says if your wife had a miscarriage, obviously you did something wrong. If your son fell out of a tree, someone did – someone caused that. And so there’s common sense that if someone was mean to you, they’re gonna get their just deserts someday. And in a sense, they have a theocracy that works in that they’re saying that everybody eventually gets what’s coming to ‘em.
Darrell Bock
Interesting. There’s a sociological dimension to this, too. Everyone shares in this locally and so it becomes – does it become localized? Is there any kind of community that’s attached? These rituals are designed to attract groups, aren’t they? They aren’t just individualized.
Ken Nehrbass
Yeah, I’m very glad you caught on that. It is very much about social cohesion. Typically animism throughout the world is related to the production of food, food supply, and so you would have clans – this is true from Australia to the South Pacific to Africa – where one clan is seen as – let’s say the wheat clan and one’s the pig clan and one’s the corn clan or something. And each of them is in charge of a certain ritual throughout the year where they engage in this ritual and then they – they’re paid for it by the other clans. And so you need to keep those people on your good side because if you don’t pay them the homage, the – really the mats, the pigs, the chickens in payment for them doing their corn sacrifice or their yam sacrifice, then maybe you’ll have a bad harvest. There’s something that says we need to keep all of you in allegiance to us. It’s an alliance that says as long as we all get along and keep reciprocating and looking out for each other, then we’ll keep taking care of each other’s food supply.

And the other – just an example of how that affects Christianity, let’s say that one man is the potato – is in charge of the potato magic. And he decides he’s gonna be a Christian and he’s no longer going to do potato magic. That’s not his decision to make because he lives in a community of 250, 500, 1000 people that says if our potatoes don’t grow, it’s your fault. And they can be absolutely furious about that. He will be blamed then probably not just for a potato failure, but for every single accident that happens in the village. It’s ‘cause you weren’t doing your part and so it really keeps the belief in these rituals tied to clan allegiances, keeps – perpetuates it. It’s very hard to break out of it or you are responsible for sickness, mudslides, deaths, and – yeah.

Darrell Bock
Interesting. Let’s shift gears a little bit ‘cause not everyone lives on Vanuatu and so – but that might encounter animism if they travel and go out and visit, often times in – especially in rural areas and that kind of thing. Often these activities are associated there and we might think we never see elements of animism in our life. But in fact, aren’t there overhangs of this that we do see in some, if I can use the word, encroachment of its presence in our own context that we might encounter? Animism doesn’t have a formal character. It’s there and around, but you don’t – like I said, no one gawks up and says oh, I’m an animist. How might we see it in our own context? Where might people be experiencing this and be unaware of it?
Ken Nehrbass
It’s shocking how recent we, as western Europeans, were animists and even post reformation. The Salem witch hunts and – but more recent, any sense – we have it in our modern vocabulary. I’m sending you positive energy. Just think good thoughts, the sense that you can control your environment by what you think. Sometimes we talk about having bad luck and I’m not sure if that means just a misfortune or that it’s something that somehow accumulates around you. Or if someone says deaths happen in three or calamities come together. Somehow there’s something in the supernatural world that’s causing tragedies to run together. I think that the way it encroaches in our Christian faith a lot is this sense that if something bad happens, I must’ve done something wrong, which of course there is – it can be a view of God’s sovereignty and God being involved in the universe.
Darrell Bock
All the details of life.
Ken Nehrbass
Yeah, but it can also be just a sense of – maybe it’s a sense that I had it coming to me regardless of God’s sovereignty. There’s certainly a branch of animism that has continued along in western society and in new age charms and amulets. Crystals were popular in the 1980’s. I don’t know what the equivalent would be now, but other behaviors related to animism, even getting high on marijuana, for instance, is often used in societies as a way of communicating with spirits. And somehow entering a different – a more supernatural state.
Darrell Bock
I actually think in subtle ways, it may be more prevalent than we tend to think. Something I remember growing up with – I didn’t grow up in a Christian home – is we used to play with Ouija boards and that kind of thing. That’s an animistic like mysticism, if I can say it that way.
Ken Nehrbass
Yeah, a sense that the spirits are hanging around and that we can cause them to talk to us, so the tarot cards and the palm readers and – yeah, in some sense, it’s carnival entertainment or something, but for other people, there’s the sense of engaging the supernatural.
Darrell Bock
Yeah, there’s something real going on here. Okay, let’s shift gears again and go into our last area, which is as we think about the way in which the gospel speaks into this, now you – there are actually – the interesting thing about what I’ve heard you describe, say like with the potato man and that kind of thing, is there actually are societal structures that are built in place that are impacted by engagement. Most people that were – are listening to this aren’t necessarily missionaries who are walking into that environment, having to deal with that extent of reality. But for the missionaries that they support who do end up being in those places, I imagine that’s a real challenge to introduce the gospel into something, into a culture that has this almost warp and woof character to it that’s wrapped into over, under, around, and through this society that you’re engaged with.

I imagine that was a challenge when you were – of course you were doing translation work, but still when you’re trying to introduce people to why they should read a New Testament, we should explain that when you go to an island like you do with Wycliffe, the goal is you’re helping them discover their language, write and codify it. And then turn around and try and translate, at least initially, a New Testament and ultimately I guess the goal is to put the Bible in that language. And we’re talking about societies often times where people, they don’t have dictionaries. They’re starting from scratch. Why don’t you talk a little bit about how that works?

Ken Nehrbass
That is the difficulty. You cannot just come in and show the Jesus film and feel like your work of discipleship is done because of how tied animism is to society, to people’s deepest worldviews. And so Christianity has often said, kind of like what – when we started with the podcast of the church said stand up, sit down, sing these songs, but didn’t really get to the deep underlying worldview behind it. And so it’s easy to just present the gospel and say raise your hand, do you want to be a follower of Jesus, and people will say yes. They’d love to have change in their life.
Darrell Bock
Here’s another spirit I need to cope with.
Ken Nehrbass
Yeah, even the god of the universe, the creator of all. Sure, I don’t have a problem with that. I buy that, but it takes generations of interacting with these passages of scripture to work out what do you do when you’re sick, what do you when you want your garden to grow. And you can’t solve that in one year even. And so the work of Bible translation is going through every single verse with a group of speakers of the local language and working through what does this verse mean. Jesus got into a boat and crossed the river. Who got in the boat? What’s a boat like? What’s a river? ‘Cause a lot of these words are missing, too, from the languages. What kind of boat? And then working through more difficult passages, the book of Romans.
Darrell Bock
There are concepts that they’ve never even – they didn’t have categories for.
Ken Nehrbass
Yeah, even the book of Acts. Who were the Jews who were the Romans? Many people living in more tribal situations today don’t really understand the dynamics of the Christians, the Jews, and the Romans in that book. And so it can take generations really of the church theological training, working through these passages to – for the church to get to a point where it can answer what it’s going to do about animism.
Darrell Bock
Because it runs so deep, it’s actually very – it is very, very hard to deal with and cope. And the other thing is that you’re actually dealing with creating – literally creating a whole other way of seeing for people in terms of how they viewed everything in their life.
Ken Nehrbass
Missiologist Paul Hebert noted that what Christianity often did was it introduced a high god who loves you and solves your problem of sin and eternal life, but that Christians often did not introduce the answer for day to day issues. How are you gonna get food on the table? What are you gonna do when there’s sickness? How are you gonna make sure it rains? And if Christianity could present an answer that Jesus is better, that God is actually in charge of the things, he cares about those issues, then people wouldn’t feel the need to turn toward their shaman, to magic, to witchcraft, sorcery and such. And so he called it the flaw of the excluded middle, which was that Christianity was good at the material life as far as education, caring for the family, being humbled. Life on earth and good for the eternal things, but what about that middle area that people have such anxieties about? And so they will continue to turn to magic and ancestral spirits until they have an answer from Christianity for that.
Darrell Bock
You go in and the goal is – it’s kind of separated in two things here: what you do when you’re in the field and then people who might encounter someone from an animistic background. That’s where – eventually where I wanna get to. You go in and you try and provide them – first of all, you get them to understand how their language works, what the structure is, and give them a vocabulary and – you said creating a dictionary, which I can’t imagine anyone with the English language doing that as a goal. And really helping them to be able to describe what goes on around them as a result. And then introduce Christianity into that mix with all the worldview that comes with it. That does seem like quite a challenge.
Ken Nehrbass
It is. It’s longer than a lifetime challenge.
Darrell Bock
So you translate the New Testament. They have a New Testament and then you go to work or someone else does on the Old Testament. The goal is eventually to put the Bible in their language and then they have something that they can study and reflect on and get taught, et cetera. That’s the goal of the types of things that Wycliffe is doing. Let’s talk about someone meets an animist. Given the experience that you have with this, how does – how do you inject Christianity into the conversation? What do you think is – are some of the things to be aware of as you have that conversation?
Ken Nehrbass
The good news is animists are very happy to talk about supernatural, very happy to talk about God even. They’re actually great mission fields if you want to have open conservations about God. God is loving and sovereign are two basic biblical truths that I think people from animistic backgrounds are not convinced of and so that God is powerful, yes, but often animists see God as subservient to the rules. The rule is what goes around comes around, that bad deserves bad. And so God is almost subservient to that, that surely if I sin, I have to be punished period. There’s no way around it, but to show that God is actually above that and that he can forgive sins, that – and that he’s loving and not just an impersonal force. You can’t just say it once and someone will be convinced. It does take a lot of conversations on if God’s father, what does that mean? Is he loving? Why do you suppose he created us? Because he delights in us and so it’s – it would require years of working through how have you seen God’s faithfulness. Have you seen him forgiving his – are there circumstances where he wouldn’t cause evildoers to receive their just deserts?
Darrell Bock
I imagine the category of grace becomes a problem.
Ken Nehrbass
That is what’s lacking. In animistic background churches, the idea of grace is – might be preached, but not deeply believed.
Darrell Bock
You’re constantly bargaining with the gods and you don’t know whether the gods are capricious or not. So you have to placate them or cater to them to be sure that you’re gonna be okay and safe.
Ken Nehrbass
Even if God is loving, there’s the sense in animism you still have to follow every single rule. And now that’s what Christianity does is in addition to following all of the animistic rules, you have to follow all of the rules in the Bible as well. And so in a way, it’s just heap this extra long and –
Darrell Bock
So the danger of the syncretism is that it can lead to a kind of legalism in relationship to Christianity that becomes a problem.
Ken Nehrbass
Typically, animistic background churches are very legalistic. The other danger is much more subtle, which is this sense that when things are going well in your life, what does that say? You must be a great person. You must deserve it. You’re healthy because you’ve followed all the rules and I think that that’s equally deceptive, but we don’t talk about that danger as much. You’re doing well because God is good, not because you followed all the rules.
Darrell Bock
The challenge or presenting grace is always a problem because we always wanna take credit for what happens to us. Ken, I thank you for taking the time to come in and talk with us about animism and to give us an introduction to what it’s like, its complexity, its depth, how it really does penetrate a society and thus is very hard to deal with on the other end. It’s been a fascinating trip. We literally probably could bring in people from different parts of the world whose animistic experiences would be both similar and different, but the overall pervasive sense of how deeply people try and interact with spiritual forces when they believe that they’re present is at the core of what animism is all about. And we thank you for helping us understand a little bit about how that works.
Ken Nehrbass
Thank you for the opportunity.
Darrell Bock
Yeah, and we thank you for being a part of The Table and we hope you’ll join us again soon.
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Darrell L. Bock
Dr. Bock is senior research professor of New Testament and executive director for cultural engagement at Dallas Theological Seminary. He has authored or edited more than 40 books, including Jesus according to Scripture: Restoring the Portrait from the Gospels, Jesus in Context: Background Readings for Gospel Study, Studying the Historical Jesus: A Guide to Sources and Methods, Jesus the Messiah: Tracing the Promises, Expectations, and Coming of Israel’s King, Who Is Jesus?: Linking the Historical Jesus with the Christ of Faith, and Key Events in the Life of the Historical Jesus: A Collaborative Exploration of Context and Coherence.
Kenneth Nehrbass
Kenneth Nehrbass was a pastor before he and his wife Mendy joined Wycliffe Bible Translators in 2000. In 2002, they moved to the island of Tanna (in Vanuatu) to translate the New Testament with a team of nationals. In 2012 they moved back to the USA, and Nehrbass became assistant professor of International Studies at Belhaven University. In 2014, he moved to Biola to teach and direct the M.A. and Ph.D. Programs in intercultural studies. He continues to volunteer as a translation and anthropology consultant with SIL and the Seed Company. His research focuses on contextual theology and missiological anthropology. He and his wife have four children.
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